The Anthroposophical Perspective on the Structure and Functioning of the Human Being
- Date 7 October 2015
Study by: Calypso Connolly
Tutor: Gill David
February 23, 2015
“The sun with loving light makes bright for me each day, the soul with spirit power gives strength unto my limbs. In sunlight shining clear I revere, Oh God, the strength of humankind, which thou has planted in my soul, that I may with all my might, may love to work and learn. From thee stream light and strength, to thee rise love and thanks.” ~Rudolf Steiner
“Life is not the product of matter, nor is it the result of physical laws, but it is a cosmic given, it is ‘God given’” (Huber, 2003, p.214). As human beings, we tend to identify ourselves with our bodies. The whole of western education, medicine and science supports the belief that we are a body and have a spirit. Spirit, also known as consciousness, is thought to be a product of our brain cells, a natural result of evolution according to Darwin. Yet we believe we have free will. Moreover, our miraculously complex body is constantly changing and renewing itself. We perceive this through aging, accidents and illness, as well as changes in our own behaviour, thoughts and feelings. As human beings with free will, we have the ability to change these. And change begins with self-awareness. Countless spiritual, religious and philosophical traditions recognize this and maintain that self-awareness is a quality of spirit, or in Huber’s (2003) terms, a ‘God given’ quality.
In the following essay, I shall draw on my own experience and personal understanding to describe the Anthoposophical perspective on the structure and functioning of the human being, as conveyed through the notions of threefoldness, fourfoldness and the seven life processes.
The fourfold human being
In attempting to answer the long-standing debate concerning the connection between spirit and matter, Rudolf Steiner and the Anthroposophic movement put forward the concept of the fourfold human being. More specifically, Steiner introduced the human being as a vessel consisting of a physical body, an ether-body, an astral body and an ego or “I”. The fourfold human being was not invented by Steiner per se. This concept has existed since the beginning of the understanding of consciousness. The Chinese, for instance, referred to the ether body as Chi, the Japanese as Ki, the Egyptian Ka and the Greek Entelecheia. The astral body is known as the Chinese Ying, the Egyptian Ba, and the Greek Pneuma. The “I” or ego concept cannot be found as such, yet the Chinese define the eternal immortal principle as the Shen, the Egyptians as the Khu and the Greeks as the Nous (Huber, 2003).
Steiner (1923) originally describes nine members of the human being, which he later summarizes into seven distinct members:
- Physical body
- Etheric body
- Astral body
- Ego or “I”
- Spirit Self – Manas
- Life Spirit – Buddhi
- Spirit Man – Atma
Despite the scarce research on this topic, it is worth noting an intriguing parallel between the seven members of the human being and the seven chakras or energy points from the Yogic tradition (see Appendix 1)
The area within the human organism in which inorganic forces of physics and chemistry are at work is the realm of the physical body, the first member of the human organism. Since Aristotle, the word ‘body’, in scientific terms, has been used to describe an entity or matter of forces (Huber, 2003). The body is spacious, it is subject to gravity, forces of cohesion, capillary forces, laws of mechanics and thermodynamics and innumerable chemical reactions. At death, it decomposes completely, losing its shape and structure and disintegrates into its separate substances. The physical body is greatly significant when it comes to human relationships. Who has not experienced the warmth of physical touch? Or the healing power that lies within the hands? The body is connected to the root chakra, Muladhara, which is linked with security, instinct and the element of earth (see appendix 1).
What is it that empowers us to stand upright when we wake up each morning? Or empowers us with the strength to carry on despite our physical tiredness? Both human beings and plants have an etheric body according to Steiner (1923). Although the etheric or “life-body” is invisible to the untrained eye, it can be ascertained by looking at life phenomena. Steiner (1923) describes it as a body of forces or energy field of light, which is spatial and takes the shape of our physical body. One may speak of the “etheric leg” or the “etheric heart”. The etheric body tends to swell up, to grow and it has a streaming nature. It strives to preserve and maintain form, and is open to the influences of the cosmos (planets, stars). Light and warmth determine the quality of its growth forces and it derives its dynamic potential in the body from the element of water (Huber, 2003). The etheric body can be linked to the sacral chakra, Swadhisthana, which, like water, symbolizes fluidity and nurturing (see appendix 1).
How do I feel towards another human being? Where does the feeling of attraction and aversion come from? Feelings and emotions belong to the realm of the astral body, the third member of the human being. The astral body has a characteristic movement of contraction, shrinking and closing down on the one hand, and expansion, relaxation and openness on the other (Huber, 2003). Let us take for instance the feeling of being in love. When falling in love, we experience the expansive side of the astral body, through feelings of beauty, of lightness and excitement. On the other hand, a separation imbued with feelings of sadness, anger and guilt, will lead us to the contractive, shrinking side of the astral body. It thus expands in attraction and contracts in aversion.
The astral body can be characterized in a number of ways. First, by contrast with the plant kingdom, human beings have consciousness, an awareness of feelings and a higher intelligence. Together with animals, they have an active metabolism, as well as an “inner hollow space”, necessary for the organs to live in. The astral body introduces destruction in the human body, breaking down substances that will either be absorbed or excreted. It is born from the “universal astral organism, which weaves through the cosmos” (Steiner, 1907, n.p, see Appendix 2 for a detailed account). Finally, it is symbolized by the air element. Compared with earth and water, air can be compressed and can also expand. And so, breathing is a characteristic of this third member (Huber, 2003). The astral body can be linked to the solar plexus chakra, Manipura, which is related to emotions and will purpose (see appendix 1).
When we look into the eyes of a newborn baby, we can see that its gaze still resides in a world beyond our own. It looks without seeing, without looking. According to Steiner (1922), the fourth member of the human being, the ego or “I” organism, enters from above and lives in the inner warmth of man. This is particularly visible in young children who have a certain warmth and air vibration. Until it fully incarnates around the age of three, the “I” of the child will be on the periphery (Studer-Senn, n.d.). It is only when the child has perceived itself and recognized that it is an entity of its own, when it has transitioned from “Keira wants a hug” to “I want a hug”, that the “I”, has truly manifested.
The “I” has a number of distinct qualities, differentiating it from the previous three realms. First, compared to the animal kingdom, human beings are able to stand in complete uprightness. Moreover, the human being is born with an infinite amount of possibilities, creating his own personal biography (Huber, 2003). Indeed, Steiner (1923, n.p.) refers to man as the “crown of physical creation”. Our individual “I” is what gives us direction and what determines the course of our life. It lives in warmth, in the element of fire. The “I” is related to the heart chakra, Anahata, which encompasses higher emotions such as love and compassion (see appendix 1). It has its seat in the middle realm and thus plays a significant role in balancing and harmonizing the different members of the human being. In fact, according to Steiner (1923, n.p.), “the “I” lives in the body and soul; but the spirit lives in the “I”. And what there is of spirit in the “I” is eternal”. Yet the “I” remains hidden, it is the eternal entelechy, the divine aspect of the whole human being as an individual unity but which never reveals itself (Zeylmans v. Emmichoven, 1982). The only way to gain access to the “I” is by first understanding the three archetypal qualities of spirit: thinking, feeling and willing.
The threefold human being
The trinity of body, soul and spirit is a concept that began in ancient civilizations. Plato already discerned three parts in the human soul and was the first to make distinctions between the thinking soul, located in the head, the emotional soul in the chest, and the soul of desires below the waist. Threefoldness can be acknowledged when considering where people located the center of the human being throughout history. For the Chinese, it was the center of Chi-Chung or Tan-tien, the source of energy, located in the navel. The Japanese called it Hara, located in the belly below the navel, the center of the will. Later, in biblical times, the heart became the center. Now, in our times, the focus is in the head. One could say that throughout history awareness has shifted from the center of energy, willing, to the heart center, feeling, to the head center, thinking (Huber, 2003).
In contrast to the fourfold view of the human being, which answers the question of how spirit and matter interrelate, Steiner’s threefold view of the human being seeks to answer the question of how spirit expresses itself in the human being (Zeylmans v. Emmichoven, 1982). According to Steiner (1987), threefoldness is expressed in the body through three organ-systems: the nerve-sense system, the rhythmic system and the metabolic-limb system. In the soul, it is expressed through three groups of functions: forming mental images, judging and feeling-desiring. In the spirit, it is formed of three main forces: thinking, feeling and willing (see table 2 below).
Table 2. Human Threefoldness (Zeylmans v. Emmichoven, 1982, p.158)
|Nerve-Sense System||Forming Mental Images Imagination||Pure Thinking|
|Metabolic-Limb System||Desiring||Pure Willing
The force that is active in the thinking realm is similar to the force which creates the manifold forms in nature. To our sense perception, nature appears in images. Through thinking, ideas are able to form. If we take the example of meeting another human being, the thinking forces are those which allow me to see this other being through my eyes, to observe his bodily features and characteristics, his posture, his gaze. If our paths separate and I do not see this person again, I will still be able to recall his features through my memory, through my soul’s imagination. If we consider the further development of consciousness, the point is not only to become conscious of these thinking forces but also to strengthen them. Steiner refers to this as imaginative consciousness, spiritual pictures which are observed in full consciousness (Zeylmans v. Emmichoven, 1982). Rather than absent-mindedly taking in images from the world around us, imaginative consciousness allows us to observe the world through our sense perceptions in full awareness. If we think of meditation, the first instruction given in most traditions is simply to observe the breath in full awareness. Along the same lines, Houten (1999, p.41) states: “The fundamental attitude to be practiced continually is openness, wonder, even reverence for the sense phenomena – just as the unspoiled child is still able to.”
In the middle, between the two opposite poles, lives the true realm of the soul. Here we find the forces that unite and harmonize the two poles, creating a trinity. In this realm, if I am looking at another human being, I will not only see him through my physical sense perception, but I will develop certain feelings towards him. Feelings have a polar structure of like and dislike, sympathy and antipathy, and so on. They belong to the part of the soul that lies midway between knowing and experiencing. Since feelings are connected with the rhythmic system, I may feel an increase in my heart rate and a change in my breathing at the view of this person. These notable physical changes are likely to occur if I feel a strong attraction towards this person. In order to understand this second spiritual archetypal force, a further development of our cognitive capacities is necessary. In addition to imaginative consciousness, we must develop inspirational consciousness, by learning to control and harmonize our feelings and desires (Zeylmans v. Emmichoven, 1982).
The third spiritual archetypal force that Steiner discusses is willing. This is the highest force that exists in the human organization. Willing can be known through the development of intuitive consciousness, also described by Steiner (as cited in Zeylmans v. Emmichoven, 1982) as: “Love must here become the power of knowledge”. While I may have strong desires and feelings towards another being, through my will I may begin to recognize the laws of the spirit, and acknowledge that my feelings of joy and attraction remain in me, as my own soul experience. Here, one must not get lost in the soul realm of feelings but must attempt to use his intuition in the development of wisdom:
Likes and dislikes, desire and loathing belong to the personal soul of man; duty stands higher than likes and dislikes. Duty may stand so high in the eyes of a man that he will sacrifice his life for its sake. And a man stands the higher the more he has ennobled his inclinations, his likes and dislikes, so that without compulsion or subjection they themselves obey what is recognized as duty. (Steiner, 1923, n.p.)
Thus through his body, the human being is able to place himself in connection with things; through his soul, he retains in himself the impressions which they make on him; through his spirit, he gains an understanding of what the things retain for themselves.
The Seven Life Processes
The human being can be imagined as having twelve separate senses through which a sevenfold life is pulsing (see image below). Whilst we can think of the senses as being ‘static’, at rest within the body, life, on the other hand, is constantly vibrating through the whole organism. According to Steiner (1990), these vibrations manifest within the organism as seven distinct physiological and soul functions which form the basis of the seven life processes.
The twelve senses are comparable to constellations. They remain motionless in their own region of the cosmos. The life processes on the other hand, like planets, appear, circling, moving and changing in a relatively short period of time. Whilst the boundaries of each sense region are fixed, the life processes vibrate through the whole organism and circulate through the individual sense areas, permeating them and influencing them (Steiner, 1990). The life processes consist of seven physiological functions: Breathing, warming, nourishing, secreting, maintaining, growing and reproducing, as well as seven soul functions: Perceiving, relating, digesting, individualizing, practicing, growing faculties and creating.
In connection with the fourfold human being, the first three life processes – breathing, warming, nourishing – are directed by the astral ‘breaking down’ forces and are related to the outer world. The fourth process – secreting – is the mediator and is ruled by the ego forces. The last three processes – maintaining, growth, reproduction – are led by the etheric ‘up building’ forces and are related to our inner world (Lindenau, 1983). By being transformed into soul processes, they unite with each other in a threefold manner. The first three processes develop a new thinking faculty, the last four a new willing faculty, whilst the rhythm between the third and fourth brings about a new feeling faculty (Houten, 1999). These seven processes thus form a unity, a spiritual organism that expresses itself in both a threefold and fourfold way, working together as a whole.
One can observe an intriguing connection between the macrocosm and the microcosm in this regard. The signs of the zodiac can be ascribed to each of the twelve senses. In the same way, a planet can be ascribed to each of the life processes (see Steiner, 1990).
In order to illustrate the seven life processes as distinct physiological and soul functions, as defined by Steiner (1990), I shall attempt to use my own understanding of the process one undergoes when relating to another human being romantically.
From the moment we are born, we breathe in the world around us. We pay attention to those things that attract us from the outside, things that are important and make sense to us in that moment (Lindenau, 1983). In the same way, a romantic relationship begins by perceiving the other person through my senses, through my vision and hearing. In the first encounter, I “breathe in” the other person, forming a rhythmic relationship with him or her. Houten (1999, p.37) adds: “Our whole biography, too, could be imagined as a learning process of breathing in and out”.
Here, we begin to create a relationship with the subject we have “breathed in”. Just as our body adapts to a new environment by increasing or decreasing its temperature, so our inner life adapts to a new situation by warming or cooling (Houten, 1999). In the relationship, I may feel a certain warmth or attraction towards the other person, or I may feel a coolness or aversion. If I feel attracted towards that person, I will begin to experience interest and curiosity. In the soul, the ego at this stage must live with the uncertainty of not knowing what the future holds for this encounter.
In Steiner’s (1990) terms, this stage is the “inner process of sustaining life”. In the body, the food is chemically destroyed and broken down, so that it may be either absorbed or excreted in the next stage. In the soul, the ego must engage in a similar process of “integration” in which it will digest what has been breathed in the first stages (Houten, 1999). In a romantic encounter, this stage involves learning more about each other, the likes and dislikes, the ideas and values as well as an investigation of each person’s intentions. In this stage I must develop courage to speak my truth, and I must have a certain degree of openness to listen to the other. Before entering the next stage, a quiet “inner space” must be created in which something new can be born.
On an organic level, this stage determines which foods will be absorbed to become nourishment for the body and what wastes will be excreted (Lindenau, 1983). In the soul, what is useless must be now let go of, whilst the rest must become individualized from within. This may include a new understanding or insight, a new feeling or motivation (Houten, 1999). For a couple, this stage is a purgative one. Here, I must recognize the nature of this particular encounter, clarifying where I stand in the relationship and letting go of what no longer serves me. If this step is taken consciously, it will often lead to an inner abyss or “threshold experience” (Houten, 1999, p. 98), a zero point where the old relationship patterns may be acknowledged and transformed.
Through the process of maintaining, the body is kept alive. It is a force that goes against ageing. Instead, it allows healing to occur through regeneration (Lindenau, 1983). In the soul, if the new learning experience in the previous stage is not maintained using practice, it will be forgotten. The motivating force and inner discipline born in the individualizing process are essential for the growing of new faculties (Houten, 1999). While the activity of digesting has an active, male character, practising has a caring, female quality. For the relationship, this is the stage in which I must practice the qualities that I wish to develop – qualities of openness, of patience, acceptance and assertiveness.
“You have to die a few times before you can really live” (Bukowski, 2008, p.238). In the body, the cells regenerate completely every few years. For the body to grow, a part of it must die and renew itself. Compared to digesting which is a dividing, analyzing process, growth is constantly synthesizing and transforming. At this stage, whatever has been learnt in the maintaining stage must be forgotten and released to leave space for a new, higher faculty to develop. In the relationship, I must let go of new habit patterns that may have developed and I must attempt to see my partner with a freshness and renewed interest. This stage could be referred to as “falling in love again”, a revisiting of the second stage of warming, but with a greater depth and quality.
The most independent stage of the human being on earth is when the etheric body becomes active by reproducing human life. This is the ultimate act of creativity that man can experience (Lindenau, 1983). In the soul, the new creation must arise as a result of the previous six stages. The ego must be creative in all six stages, yet in this final stage, it must be creative to a greater degree so that the result is not a mere repetition but an original accomplishment (Houten, 1999). In the relationship, on one level, reproducing may involve giving birth to a child. Yet on another, it encompasses re-creating oneself through the crises and glitches experienced together.
Everything in nature is interrelated, just as everything is interrelated in the human organism. The purpose, according to Steiner (1914), is to comprehend those relationships on a level that becomes our own truth. Through Steiner’s fourfoldness, we gain an understanding of the relationship between our body and spirit through the four distinct members. Through his threefoldness, we gain a deeper understanding of the connection between the body, soul and spirit, and how spirit expresses itself in the human being. Through his seven life processes, we begin to fathom the ever-changing nature of the human being, the constant metamorphosis within us and around us. And as the noble artist Michelangelo depicted in a most poetic manner in his painting of the creation of Adam, we are only one breath away from knowing God, the Cosmos, the Spirit.
Bukowski, C. The People Look Like Flowers at Last, USA: HarperCollins, 2008.
Cosley, R. “Chakras: The Seven Gates To Freedom” (2013) http://www.ananda.org/the-yogis-say/chakras/ (1 Jan 2015).
Houten, C. van. Awakening the Will: Principles and Processes in Adult Learning, London: Temple Lodge Publishing, 1999.
Huber, M. Foundations of Anthroposophical Medicine: A training Manual Paperback, UK: Floris Books, 2003.
Jung, C. Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 7, 2nd ed., USA: Princeton University Press, 1966.
Khan, H. I. The Sufi Message: In an Eastern Rose Garden, Vol. VII, India: Motilal Banarsidass, 2003.
Lindenau, C. Der Ubende Mensch, 1983. Summary translation by Gertraud Goodwin.
Steiner, R. “Anthroposophical Approach to Medicine: Lecture III” (1922) http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/GA314/English/APC1951/19221027p02.html (1 Jan 2015).
Steiner, R. “Michelangelo” (1914) http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/Micang_index.html (1 Jan 2015).
Steiner, R. (1987) Polarities in Health, Illness and Therapy, UK: Mercury Press.
Steiner, R. (1990) The Riddle of Humanity, UK: Rudolf Steiner Press.
Steiner, R. “Theosophy: An Introduction to the Supersensible Knowledge of the World and the Destination of Man” (1923) http://wn.rsarchive.org/Books/GA009/English/RSP1965/GA009_c01_4.html (1 Jan 2015).
Steiner, R. “Theosophy of the Rosicrucian” (1907) http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/GA099/English/RSP1966/TheRos_index.html (1 Jan 2015).
Studer-Senn (n.d.) The Invisible Human Being in us: Studies and Exercises. Published by the Medical Section at the Goetheanum.
Zeylmans van Emmichoven, F. W. The Anthroposophical Understanding of the Soul, New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1982.
The Seven Chakras (Cosley, 2013):
- Root chakra: Muladhara
- Sacral chakra: Swadhisthana
- Solar plexus chakra: Manipura
- Heart chakra: Anahata
- Throat chakra: Vishuddha
- Brow chakra: Ajna
- Crown chakra: Sahasara
Table 2. The Sevenfold Human Being and the Chakras
|Lower realm||Etheric||Swadhistana||Water||Fluidity, creativity|
|Middle realm||Ego||Anahata||Fire/Air||Love, balance|
|Spirit Self||Vishuddha||Ether||Interaction, imagination|
|Higher realm||Life Spirit||Ajna||Light||Perception, inspiration|
|Spirit Man||Sahasara||Thought||Wisdom, intuition|
Where does the astral body itself come from? According to Steiner (1907, n.p.), it is born out of the “universal astral organism, which weaves through the whole of the cosmos”. To understand the relation between the small portion of astral substance contained in the astral body to that of the astral ocean in which all beings are contained and out of which they are born, one can think of a drop of water. The drop has separated out from the ocean and has become a distinct entity, yet what is contained in the drop is exactly the same as the ocean itself. Similarly, what is contained in the astral body was once part of the astral ocean of the cosmos. As the great Sufi Master, Hazrat Inayat Khan (2003, p.56), writes: “The wave realizes “I am the sea,” and by falling into the sea prostrates itself to its god”.
It is worth noting Carl Jung’s descriptions of a “collective unconscious”, a concept that would seem to resemble Steiner’s “universal astral organism” (Jung, 1966, p.118):
The unconscious contains, as it were, two layers: the personal and the collective. The personal layer ends at the earliest memories of infancy, but the collective layer comprises the pre-infantile period, that is, the residues of ancestral life. Whereas the memory-images of the personal unconscious are, as it were, filled out, because they are images personally experienced by the individual, the archetypes of the collective unconscious are not filled out because they are forms not personally experienced.
Jung’s archetypes, which “are not personally experienced”, could refer to those archetypes experienced as dreams during the sleep hours. In fact, according to Steiner (1907), during sleep, the astral body withdraws from the consciousness of the physical world and drifts into the cosmic harmony, the astral ocean from which it was born. There, it has access to group souls and collective, universal realms, as suggested by Jung (see figure 1 below).